Coronavirus Lockdown & Boredom: Yes, Domestic Helps Are ‘Bored’
Coronavirus lockdown has resulted in the domestic worker’s loss of an identity beyond her family and home.
Domestic work, part of the unorganized sector in India, is largely feminised. To begin with, occupations which are largely dominated by women pay less than occupations with a predominately male workforce. Brutal and exploitative as domestic work is in India, the sudden lockdown has resulted in a number of domestic workers—largely migrant women—finding themselves suddenly stripped of all autonomy and confined to their homes.
The fear of loss of income, livelihood, rising domestic violence, being shut up in a small confined rooms in tenements with other family members – are key causes of worry. Yet, there are also other reasons resulting in worry and anxiety. Just as we are expressing our frustrations at being confined and bored so are the domestic workers, and it's not funny.
Yes, Our Domestic Helps Can Also Get Bored
Unlike us they do not have the same facilities: larger homes with running water, toilets and electricity, the internet, Netflix and books, zoom meetings and FaceTime. Largely non-literate, the women find themselves with nothing to do with their time but, perhaps if they’re lucky, a TV as their sole entertainment. Many may have smartphones with access to YouTube, WhatsApp but cutbacks in money, incomes and fear of loss of jobs will not allow them to use it as freely and frequently as they wish. Most in any case have prepaid accounts with limited data. This is mainly controlled by their husbands and sons who will be the ones stepping out to recharge the accounts.
“Didi, main toh bore hogayee”, responds Seema, my part-time cook of over a decade when I call her to ask how she’s doing and if she requires any assistance. Purnima, the cleaner who works in my home, also asks me repeatedly when she can return to work.
Another friend talks of how her employee, Geeta, rang her in distress, wishing to return to her job.
An aunt speaks of how her employee Anita , a young woman, is willing and offering to come to work as a live-in worker. Newly married and new to the city, Anita has no social network of friends and family around her and finds it difficult to be confined. I hear from friends and family about how despite assuring their domestic workers of pay and continued employment the women wish to return to their work.
Confinement and Loss of Identity
Seema claims she’s in her late thirties, but it is hard to tell. She works in several homes—at least eight that I know of—in our complex and even beyond. Her work ethic would put the majority of us to shame. She talks of how this is the longest she’s ever stayed home, how she misses going to work and that she enjoyed it. She reports how she is unable to sleep well these days and is restless – playing with her grandson provides her temporary relief.
A powerhouse and driving force in her family (and at work), she’s now confined to her family in their two room tenement in the Bengali Bazaar colony of Gurgaon.
This has resulted in her loss—temporarily, no doubt—of an identity beyond her family and home.
Through grit and determined hard work, women like her have over the years managed to pull themselves and their families out of poverty towards a semblance of middle class personhood.
It is through her personal relationships with her various employers that Seema has bought land and then built a home in her village via interest free loans – slowly returned over stretches of time. Her husband has quite often been unemployed and a few years back was in a road accident and suffered a crippling injury leaving her with the load of provider.
For Seema and countless women like her, work provides them an agency and autonomy, besides an income.
Domestic Workers Have Lost Their New-Found Agency
It also gives them a chance to step out into the larger world and carve out a space within their largely patriarchal families – albeit within strict power hierarchies. Long term domestic workers over the years also gained the trust of their employers. The middle class employer is, more often than not, capricious, unfeeling and exploitative and the older feudal system has slowly changed into a more contractual one.
However, the Indian middle class also recognises how reliant they are on the workforce which services their homes and makes their lives more comfortable. This can lead to long term employment and a mutual relationship of trust and dependence from both parties.
The lockdown—necessary as it was—has meant a sudden cessation of all activities outside our homes for us all is especially hard for domestic workers. Their leisure activities were snatched in between time at home and at their workplace: when they walked towards their workplaces, in between the various homes they worked in, when they met their friends to catch up and gossip and even sometimes indulging in dalliances. Lockdown has taken them back to where they started and is a reminder of how easily they can slip back into poverty as well as confinement.
Lockdown Could Lead to Spike in Depression and Anxiety
Seema speaks of how she’s now reflecting and thinking and is troubled – her language doesn’t include words like: anxiety, depression. “Bored” and ‘tang’ is how she describes what she is feeling. The helplines for depression and counselling—even if she were to know of them or call them—do not address her class or group.
I fear besides the rise of domestic violence this group of women workers will also suffer a rise of depression and anxiety – their work gave them their sense of identity, power, and selfhood. With its sudden cessation and, hopefully, temporary loss has resulted in having a lot of free time with nothing to do but reflect on their lives which chiefly consists of drudgery.
Seema sums it up as our conversation ends, “Didi, mujhe ab ek sunsaan jagah jane ka man hai” – I now wish to go to a quiet place. Lockdown can’t lift fast enough, especially for this particular group of women workers who see the gains they made slipping away before their very eyes.
(Radha Khan is an independent consultant working in the field of gender, governance and social inclusion. She tweets @RadhaKhn. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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